Though we celebrated the 50th anniversary of the original Star Trek series premiere back in September 2016, it’s been fun to recognize various favorite episodes as they each reach their own respective golden milestone. Landmark installments like “Arena,” “The City on the Edge of Forever,” and “The Doomsday Machine” have all gotten a bit of love as they turned 50, but it’s also fun to recognize those episodes which might not often show up on various “Best of” lists while still being personal favorites.
For me, “Assignment: Earth” is one such episode.
NOTE: What follows is recycled from a bit I wrote back in 2016, so if you get a “deja vu” vibe as you read it, go with that feeling.
“Assignment: Earth” is the episode that closed out Star Trek‘s second season, airing 50 years ago tonight on March 29, 1968. It was produced as a “backdoor pilot,” introducing super human agent Gary Seven and his assistant, Roberta Lincoln, and an enigmatic cat/possible shapeshifter named Isis. Lurking behind the scenes of Earth history, this odd trio would be working to make sure humanity is able to survive the challenges and obstacles it will face in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, until such time as it evolves into a “mature civilization.” The episode was intended to set up Seven and Lincoln to have their own adventures in a hoped-for television series spin-off, which would’ve been named…wait for it…Assignment: Earth.
What many casual fans and other, normal human beings don’t know is that Gene Roddenberry, working with fellow writer Art Wallace, originally conceived the premise as its own entity, unconnected to the Star Trek setting. When efforts to gain that idea some traction fell short, Wallace inserted the characters and their setup plot into Star Trek. It’s here that we’re introduced to Gary Seven, a descendant of humans taken from Earth thousands of years ago by unknown aliens, and trained to the upper limits of human physical and mental ability in preparation for a special mission to help guide his native civilization through tumultuous periods of our history.
The result – if we’re being honest – is not a particularly great Star Trek episode. It’s clunky in that special way only pilot episodes can achieve, while committing the additional sin of regulating the show’s actual stars, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy, to supporting status as they struggle to help Gary Seven and Roberta establish a foothold for many more “adventures to come.”
Still, Spock’s line at the end, where he hints at the show that was not to be as he tells Kirk, “Captain, we could say that Mr. Seven and Miss Lincoln have some interesting experiences in store for them,” is just one of the things about this episode that I’ve always found intriguing. It’s easy to understand why the premise was never revisited in filmed Star Trek, but I’ve often wondered why it was never explored via other onscreen means. Other ideas developed by Gene Roddenberry in those years between the original Star Trek series and its feature film rebirth were later dusted off, updated, and re-imagined for television, namely Andromeda and Earth: Final Conflict. However, no one apparently has (yet?) thought to reincarnate the Assignment: Earth premise, either as its own series or once again connected to the Star Trek universe. Who knows? Maybe it’s just a matter of “When” rather than “If.”
Meanwhile, I’ve frequently imagined what Seven and Roberta might’ve been up to, working behind the scenes here on Earth. What historical milestones did they influence? What disasters did they prevent, or which ones were they forced to observe, even though they may have possessed the power to alter the course of events, because history itself demanded that things play out in a certain way? The possibilities of this premise were, to borrow one of Mr. Spock’s pet responses, “Fascinating.”
And I’m obviously not the only one who felt that way.
Writer Howard Weinstein was the first to revisit Mr. Seven and Miss Lincoln, in “The Peacekeeper,” a two-part story for DC Comics in 1993. Here, Howie expands Seven’s backstory a bit, to include giving a name to his mysterious alien benefactors: “the Aegis.” Howie would later join forces with fellow writer Michael Jan Friedman to bring back Seven for a Star Trek/Star Trek: The Next Generation comics two-parter from 1996, “Convergence.”
Seven and Roberta made their debut in novel form in 1998 thanks to Greg Cox. In Assignment: Eternity, the Earth agents travel to the 23rd century, enlisting the aid of Kirk and the Enterprise to rescue a captured Aegis agent and safeguard his advanced technology from falling into Romulan hands.
Cox would revisit Seven’s adventures on 20th century Earth in a big way with The Eugenics Wars: The Rise and Fall of Khan Noonien Singh, a two-novel epic published in 2001 and 2002 that pits Seven against the genetically-engineered superman and his followers throughout the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The story sets the stage for Khan’s exile from Earth aboard a “sleeper ship” and his eventual discovery by Captain Kirk and the Enterprise in the first season Star Trek episode “Space Seed.”
Speaking as a fan, Greg’s three Gary Seven novels are among my favorite Star Trek tales, and they would end up factoring heavily in some of my own storytelling choices. My 2013 novel From History’s Shadow features Roberta Lincoln coming to Kirk and Spock to help her with a problem involving aliens on Earth in the late 1960s. Using Greg’s books as a guide, I added more backstory to the Aegis operations behind the scenes, placing agents on Earth beginning in the late 1940s with a few predecessors to Gary Seven.
My follow-up novel, Elusive Salvation, gives Roberta a new mission with Kirk and Spock, this time in the 1980s. While Mr. Seven has appearances in both books, I opted to focus on Roberta in these stories, to show her evolution from Seven’s “assistant” to a full-fledged agent in her own right. Also, I discovered that this approach made it easier to maintain continuity with The Eugenics Wars novels, which had always been one of my self-imposed mandates. There are even more connections to all of the above in my 2017 Star Trek: The Next Generation novel Hearts and Minds.
Seven and/or Roberta also found their way into several stories from the Star Trek: Strange New Worlds anthologies. First, there was my own “The Aliens Are Coming!” from the third volume in 2000. I’d written this story before getting a chance to read the first volume of The Eugenics Wars, learning only later that Greg would make a sly reference to the story in the second book.
(For those wondering, the events of that original story were later tweaked and incorporated into From History’s Shadow.)
Other Strange New Worlds stories featuring Seven and/or Roberta are “Seven and Seven” in SNW6, “Assignment: One” in SNW8 (which I also reference in the aforementioned Hearts and Minds), “Rocket Man” in SNW9, and “Time Line” in SNW10.
Finally, Seven and Roberta make return forays to the world of comics, this time in stories from IDW Publishing in 2008. First, there’s the five-issue miniseries Assignment: Earth, written and illustrated by comics legend John Byrne, which showcases our favorite covert operatives working on Earth in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Byrne would bring Kirk back to 1970s Earth to help Seven yet again in “1971/4860.2,” the July 2015 issue of his ongoing series of Star Trek “photo comics,” New Visions. As I write this, the next New Visions installment is slated to feature a return visit by Mr. Seven.
That’s a pretty good bit of material spinning out of a so-so failed “pilot” episode.
Over the years, more than a few comparisons have been made between this episode and various aspects of Doctor Who, which premiered on the BBC in November 1963. Mysterious traveler from space possessing high-tech gadgets and helping humans on occasion, at first blush might seem as though one is lifting material from the other. Given that Doctor Who had not yet aired in the U.S. at the point “Assignment: Earth” was developed, this seems unlikely. That said, I have pondered on more than one occasion a story which might bring Gary Seven to partner with the Doctor, particularly the 3rd or 4th incarnation (as portrayed, respectively, by Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker) during that period when the character was exiled to Earth.
Tell me that wouldn’t rock balls.
Will there be more Gary Seven, either on screen or on the page? I guess we’ll see what we see, but I’m not betting against it. 🙂
Meanwhile, happy 50th anniversary to Mr. Seven, Miss Lincoln, and Isis.